A third move to Cheney has been the charm for new Eastern Washington defensive coordinator Eti Ena.
The first was serendipitous.
Twenty-five years ago, Ena, a former two-way high school star in Inchelium, Washington, enrolled at EWU, hoping to make the roster after a pair of junior college seasons at Snow and Walla Walla.
A career-ending shoulder injury derailed the linebacker’s hopes of punishing Big Sky Conference offenses.
It helped expedite his coaching career, though.
Ena was soon an assistant high school coach in Shelton, Washington, before returning to Cheney in 2003 to finish his degree, working as a student-assistant for former EWU head coach Paul Wulff.
The three-year apprenticeship led to his first full-time gig at NAIA Eastern Oregon, a three-year stint as defensive coordinator that paved the way for NCAA Division I stops as a defensive line coach at Idaho and Cal Poly.
“Cal Poly (in San Luis Obispo, California) was nice, the kind of place you go for a vacation, but it wasn’t a place I thought I would be around for long,” Ena said. “I knew I’d be back home in the Northwest.”
Former EWU head coach Beau Baldwin, who worked with Ena on Wulff’s staff, gave him an opportunity to return to Cheney for a third time in 2016, the season the Eagles enjoyed a run to FCS national semifinals.
When former EWU defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding left for Boise State in January following the Eagles’ run to the FCS national title game, head coach Aaron Best promoted Ena from defensive line to fill the vacancy.
Ena, who helped Schmedding’s defense surrender a Big Sky-low 16.9 points per game last season, doesn’t plan on changing much.
“I really like what we’ve done the last three years I’ve been here with coach Schmedding – kind of becoming a multiple defense with the ability to do a lot of things, because you have to defend a lot of different offenses,” Ena said. “We’re going to play with our 4-2-5, and with our same group play some 3-4 stuff, find ways to bring pressure.
“We’ve got good blitzers. We’ve got guys that can bring pressure from different angles. We want to continue to build on that ability, and it comes down to having the right bodies that can play in coverage, as well as the right ones that feel good about blitzing.”
EWU’s defense returns more than a half-dozen players who’ve registered starts over the last two seasons, including defensive ends Mitch Johnson and Jim Townsend, budding linebackers Chris Ojoh and Jack Sendelbach, and defensive backs Dehonta Hayes, Tysen Prunty, Calin Criner and Anfernee Gurley.
Two-year starter Dylan Ledbetter, who has started at nose and defensive tackle, is expected to anchor the Eagles’ defensive line and be the vocal leader.
“He’s got an infectious personality and players look to him,” Ena said of Ledbetter.
Ledbetter gained most of his experience in the middle when graduated standout Jay-Tee Tiuli missed 2017 due to injury and was benched for the FCS semifinal and championship game last season for a violation of team rules.
“I like three-technique. I just feel like I’m more on and edge,” said Ledbetter, who praised experienced returning defensive lineman Kieth Moore. “But I like nose. I just love playing, so if a spot has to be filled, I’ll hop in.”
EWU lost all four of its corners to graduation, but Ena said he likes what he sees in Tamir Hill and Darrien Sampson.
Criner said the secondary will again be boosted by the play of the defensive line and linebackers creating pressure.
“I think we have the best defensive line and linebackers in the nation,” Criner said.
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